Still kicking — the beating hearts, drums interwoven with trauma and intimacy at the 2023 National Arts Festival
It has been 30 years since I arrived for my first National Arts Festival in what was then Grahamstown, shacking up in a res room with my girlfriend who was in the student production from Tuks. Since then, a lot has changed.
I’m now sitting in an office not a hundred metres from that res, and significantly balder. There’s no more Film Fest, Litfest, Thinkfest, or Creativate Digital Festival. There are fewer venues, to ensure that they all have backup generators. It may be a more trimmed-down version, but still boasts of being “the biggest arts festival in Africa”. Armed with 37 tickets, I was looking forward to getting stuck in.
The festival was off to a slow start. Audiences were lean, and now that everything’s online, fewer colourful posters cluttered the streets. There was no more cosy Cape Town Fringe chocolate bar at Princess Alice, and I had to enter the Monument through metal detectors. I later realised these were in honour of the visiting political dignitaries who opened the festival. Thankfully both they and their detectors disappeared the next day.
In the first days came the usual boring headlines bemoaning potholes and the ongoing water crises, but was it really necessary to repeat the obvious at the expense of focussing on the incredible artists who’d arrived in town? There was so much to see and so many quality performers were waiting to be appreciated.
As Wilde (sort of) said: “We are all in a pothole, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
So then, let’s get to the art. It was a smorgasbord, and I overindulged. I saw all the Young Artists, ritual indigenous works, jazz, comedy, serious theatre, silly theatre, student theatre, heaps of Fringe, as well as exhibitions, digital performance art from Switzerland and two Inuits from Nunavik.
There was circus, illusion, magic, raunchy stories and Baked Shakespeare, in which two cast members are selected to get progressively stoned during a show. Restaurants were doing good business, and at Triple S (still affectionately known by its former name of Slipstream) the Pride party had drag queens dancing with grizzled locals and “gays vs straights” on the pool tables, all united within the warming glow of alcohol.
It was a true festival, a carnival.
Many popular shows urged escape, amusement. Stand-ups did a solid trade and audiences flocked to regulars Brendon Peel and Li — “one crazy China” — Lau’s bizarre trickery. For those into more thoughtful diversion, there were established texts to choose from, including Beckett, Charles Mee, Reza De Wet and Nadia Davids. Almost every show I attended gave a standing ovation. I found audiences eager, hungry to connect, to reflect, to be transported, to be changed.
I spent more time this year at the Jazz festival than usual, and was amply rewarded by a session with the legendary Paul Hanmer on solo piano, going deep into the bass notes, covering the whole range of that keyboard. Hamner also accompanied the down-to-earth Natalie Rungan; and then I chanced on — a new discovery — the fantabulous world of Carlo Mombelli, a true magician of the 5-string bass, who conjured up all kinds of familiar sprites and spirits in a joyous ceremony of delight. Indescribable.
There were quite a few theatre pieces around inherited trauma, from Droomwerk (the only Afrikaans show I saw) to the new piece by Nadia Davids, Hold Still.
Last year’s Gold Ovation winner, Île, also had Sophie Joans feeding this theme, and surely nobody could do it with such verve, being so giddy and charming about a profoundly serious subject. It’s the story of her ancestry on Mauritius, and she tells of how the life inside a volcano is lush, having gone through fire and turmoil, and how it is the very messiness of life, the things sometimes disgusting and unfair, which also lead to change, to movement, to beauty. Joans also hosted Raunchy Renditions in which a mix of professional performers and amateurs related deeply personal stories without shame or blame.
On a more serious note, Nadia David’s new work, Hold Still (directed by Jay Pather), was brim-full of well-observed insights into the dynamics of relationships, showing how families fit together around habitual patterns of conflict and connection. She has an ear for natural dialogue, and a wonderfully insightful humour in revealing routines between couples, friends and different generations.
The South African audience were put in the interesting position of hearing themselves spoken about from a perspective outside of the country. Set in London, a British character describes South Africa as “another failed African state,” setting off a collective moan of hurt and protest from the audience: because we’re here, we’re in it, we want this place to work.
One of the characters in Hold Still suggests that parents have to lie to children, deceiving them into believing the world is a good and safe place. By the end, they have decided to lie about what matters, to go against the system, rather than endorse injustice. The original trauma of the play begins with a past distraught by Nazis and the SA National Party and the narrative shows how traces remain in ways that parents hold stories and secrets so that their children don’t have to. The new generation is only ever told the happy ending, not of the deep suffering before.
However, both of these cultures (the post-WW2 Jewish experience and post-apartheid exile), engage with traumas experienced by groups who were ultimately victorious, who were validated by history. What of the intergenerational trauma of the perpetrators?
Droomwerk deals with Afrikaaner trauma of having supported slavery, hatred and violence against “the other”, and it felt as though the play ended up punishing the audience with brutal lighting, distressing sounds, smoke and screams. It generated an actual experience of trauma for the audience in its self-loathing. I didn’t buy the co-opting of a sangoma experience as a ticket to redemption; but at least it tried to express the painful difficulty of coming to terms with a past in which one’s ancestors have perpetrated great evil.
A more authentic resort to the sacred came with Msaki (the SBYA for music) in her creation of the Ndiyozilanda exhibit, a “series of site-specific healing rituals” in which she worked with “versions of her younger self from various sites of trauma and separation around Makhanda”. She engages with the burdens of a terrified past, providing an antidote to the impulse of reacting to fear with hostility. So much trauma is grounded in alienation, in separation; and it is connection — not aggression — which brings relief.
Even though contemporary forms predominated, there were many shows respecting traditional indigenous cultures. From the earth-shaking depths of The Ngqoko Women’s Ensemble to Umkhondo, a show combining an academic thesis on ritual performance with the actual ceremony to honour an elder who’d passed on.
I also attended an Ukubonga ceremony of thanksgiving with artist Nyaniso Lindi at his Joza studio. Asakhe Cuntsulana’s Eh Lehta connected us to his roots, presenting a sincere and intimate performance which offered a soothing balm to the vexed spirits of some other shows. His performance provided, “a hope that reinvigorates”, rather than angry despair.
None of these shows was for a mass market. The women from The Ngqoko Ensemble barely even acknowledged their audience. They were performing not only for the room, but for the ground, the space and invisible presences around. The movement was internal, reminding me of how the Khoisan (in the Bleek and Lloyd archives) spoke about being able to feel an “inner tapping” when other beings were near, even though they could not yet be seen or heard.
Each of these shows offered helpful routes of engaging with a broken past, bringing restoration, grounding and an attempt at healing in connection. They created an intimate relation to their audience, even to those (like myself) unfamiliar with these cultural norms. Daniel Buckland’s Castaways reminded us that if you’re stuck on a raft without a common language, you’re going to need others to survive.
What can heal us from trauma is intimacy, is connection.
At the end of Aalapi, (the indigenous show from Canada), the small audience were invited onto stage to eat “Bannock” a sort of syrupy cinnamon bun, and share tea. I did enjoy the razzmatazz of the flashier shows, but I really loved these quieter moments, where one transcended the sense of being lumped into a mass, where one could begin to feel oneself.
‘Intimacy’ also turned up as a theme in Kholeka Phutuma’s work. She’s the first winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist for Poetry and crafted her texts into an exhibit where her words were put into relation with sound scores, performances, objects and images. She explored the fragmentary relation of subjective experiences enhanced by biological or chemical embodiment, being interested in inner awareness. She writes that “any whisp of memory is evidence. Allow the stories of intimacy, kinship, and wild, wild abandon to seduce you … use your eyes to listen; some senses have more than one function.”
A workshop I attended with Leila Anderson began with a description of how we find ourselves at the centre of concentric rings of relationship rippling around us. We feel as though we’re at the centre, but the rings vibrate into connection and contradiction with others. I didn’t like the ending of Droomwerk, when an ancestral spirit says, “I can’t be here for you anymore, I have to look after myself,” even though I get the contemporary ethic about individualistic ‘boundaries’ and such. Still, it feels wrong-footed — we need to look after each other.
There were some shows looking at how we’re connecting digitally, such as Nelisiwe Xaba’s Fake News, which played with how images never tell the whole truth about the body and its competitive contexts.
In DSimon, the Swiss artist Simon Senn has an intimate connection with a digital AI self, an entity which becomes cause for both consternation and comfort. In Be Arielle he explored his relationship to his own body and the connection he felt when inhabiting the 3D scan of another body. Senn is at the edge of investigating our tentative new relationships with AI technologies and identities, embracing the possibilities while staying aware of the psychological effects he is testing on himself.
During the festival, I gave a lift to Yvonne Ntsomi, a director from Rustenburg whose play Stop! was on during the first few days of the fringe. Even though audiences were thin on the ground at the start of the fest, she told me that they’d formed connections with so many other performers from Limpopo, Free State, Northwest and all over the country. They’d supported each other’s shows and formed what she called her “festival family”. What a wonderful thing! These kinds of real and personal interconnections are more important to the future of arts and culture than all the accolades and awards.
In brief then, I had a great festival and thoroughly enjoyed manoeuvring through the shows and bumping into occasional people I only ever see here. Of course, I am biased because I live here, and I want this town to thrive. I’m biased because I want the festival to keep coming back.
Next year is its 50th anniversary and I’m hoping it will grow not only in size but in depth, allowing all kinds of paradoxes, contradictions, divergences and differences.
The moment from this festival which I’ll remember the longest is the resounding, wall-shaking, ululating reception greeting Gregory Maqoma’s Exit/Exist.
It’s 11 years since its premier, but with the name of the town having changed to that of Maqoma’s warrior ancestor, this felt like a homecoming of the prophet. It was a deeply sorrowful but also celebratory experience, and when the audience rose as one, with tears and laughter and endless applause, it felt like the spirit of Makana had come home. He might not have won the Battle for Grahamstown two hundred years ago, but on this day, he conquered. Something came alive. DM